Courtesy Reuters

Labor's New Internationalism

THE SEATTLE MESSAGE

The fervent protests that accompanied the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle last November showed just how urgent the issues of globalization and trade are to working Americans. Joining with environmentalists, consumer advocates, and human rights activists, the labor movement's message from Seattle could not have been clearer: The era of trade negotiations conducted by sheltered elites balancing competing commercial interests behind closed doors is over. Globalization has reached a turning point. The future is a contested terrain of very public choices that will shape the world economy of the 21st century. The forces behind global economic change -- which exalt deregulation, cater to corporations, undermine social structures, and ignore popular concerns -- cannot be sustained. Globalization is leaving perilous instability and rising inequality in its wake. It is hurting too many and helping too few. As President Clinton himself has said, if the global market is to survive, it must work for working families. A first step toward that goal is building labor rights, environmental protection, and social standards into trade accords and the protocols of international financial institutions -- and enforcing them with the same vigor now reserved for property rights.

These concerns of the labor movement are often caricatured as protectionist, parochial, and out of touch with the realities of the global economy. This is a dangerous misreading of the labor movement's position. Confusing labor's concerns over fairness with rising isolationism in America and abroad will only hinder the adoption of the reforms needed. Trade policies that ignore the rights and needs of workers move the world backward, not forward. The cacophonous voices in the streets of Seattle represented tomorrow's challenge, not yesterday's nostalgia. They imagined a world in which prosperity is shared by those who produce it, in which nations treat each other, the earth, and its people with dignity and respect. The protesters demanded accountability for the powerful and a voice for the voiceless. Such idealism has a practical effect. Shared prosperity

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